France: Electoral Rules Matter

While the final numbers are not in, it would appear that Emmanuel Macron will win the plurality of the vote in the first round of of France’s presidential elections and Marianne Le Pen will come in second.  Due to the use of a two-round system that requires an absolute majority of the vote to win the election, the two will face off in May.

As I like to say, rules matter, and this is a great example.  The top-two system that France employs helped foster a variety of candidates (eleven, in fact, this cycle), four of whom had a chance to make it to the second round.   That is more choice than the US system by far.  (Not that the presidential electoral rules are the only reason for more parties, but it does contribute).

At the end of the day, at least, the French electorate will pick a president who has to win an absolute majority of the vote.

Food for thought, as they say.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Quick Takes, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. An Interested Party says:

    At the end of the day, at least, the French electorate will pick a president who has to win an absolute majority of the vote.

    Wouldn’t you say that French elections are helped by many factors that don’t exist in American elections, like a national ID, no PACs, a ceiling of how much each candidate can spend, a ban on television ads, candidates given equal time on TV, etc.?

  2. James Joyner says:

    @An Interested Party: It’s mostly the electoral rules but also culture. Duverger’s Law, which posits that first-past-the-post voting systems leads inevitably to two party politics, has largely been debunked but has held true in the U.S. Mostly, I think it’s because we’ve had a two-party system from the outset and the parties have written rules to make it next to impossible for third parties to compete.

  3. MBunge says:

    Looking at France’s, and Europe’s, political culture and governing performance, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot there to emulate. It appears the multi-party environment there has resulted in major parties even more sclerotic and clueless than the Dems or GOP.

    Mike

  4. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    Duverger’s Law, which posits that first-past-the-post voting systems leads inevitably to two party politics, has largely been debunked but has held true in the U.S

    I’m less familiar with India but in the UK, there are very few ridings where there are more than 2 major parties for that district. And DL is very much district based. See here for a wonky explanation of why Dunleavy is overstating the case.

  5. @James Joyner: In my view, based on comparative study, is that our primary system coupled with FPTP and other institutional forces (such as the electoral college, but not just) significantly reinforce the two party system.

    There is simply no reason to start a third party if you can win the nomination of one of the mainline parties. See, e.g., Ron Paul, the Tea Party, and the infusion of evangelicalism into the GOP in the 1970/80s (e.g.., the “Moral Majority”).

  6. @James Joyner: @SKI: Indeed, the “lawishness” of Duverger’s Law is questionable, to be sure. And Matthew Shugart (the author of the wonky post linked by SKI and one of my co-authors of A Different Democracy) will happily point out that the power of the Law was well overstated in the past.

    But, there is clearly a constraining element to the development of parties created by single seat districts and FPTP. And, certainly, it does produce closer to a two party outcomes than it does to the kind of multipartism we see in PR systems. Below is a hastily cut-and-pasted table from a pending chapter by me on the US electoral system in the Oxford Handbook of Electoral Systems (and Shugart is one of the co-editors):

    Table 1: First Chamber Elections, FPTP, Single Seat District Cases

    ENEP ENPP
    Canada 3.28 2.50
    India 6.63 7.56
    New Zealand 2.53 1.96
    UK 2.94 2.18
    US 2.07 1.94

    The first column is the effective number of electoral parties (i.e., that competed in the election) and the second is the effective number of parliamentary parties (i.e., those that won seats). All of these countries use (or, in NZ’s case, used until 1996) FPTP. (Only the US uses primaries to select candidates, btw). (The “effective number” is a measure of fragmentation).

    India is a clear aberration, the others less so. Date ranges: Canada (1945-2015), India (1990-2015), New Zealand (1946-1993), UK (1945-2015), and US (1946-2014).

  7. SKI says:

    nevermind, typo fixed.

  8. Pch101 says:

    There were several choices available to Americans, even though only two of them had a reasonable chance of winning.

    What makes the US system different (and perhaps not in a good way) is the persistence of the two same parties at the top of the heap. In France, the major parties merge, dissolve, etc.

  9. SKI says:

    @Pch101:

    What makes the US system different (and perhaps not in a good way) is the persistence of the two same parties at the top of the heap. In France, the major parties merge, dissolve, etc.

    No, what makes France different is elections in France follow a two-round system, not first-past-the-post (FPTP)

    In a FPTP system, Macron would have won as he had more votes than anyone else. There would be no run-off.

  10. Pch101 says:

    @SKI:

    If France didn’t have a two-round system, then voters would likely make different choices, as the first round is often used as a protest vote.

    If France didn’t have a two-round system, then the parties would probably be inclined to form broader coalitions in order to increase the odds of winning the plurality that would be needed to win the presidency. So voters would have different choices than they do now.

    Macron’s En Marche! party is a breakaway from the Socialists. Without a two-round system, it would seem likely that there would have been some sort of pre-election power struggle within the Socialists that yielded one candidate, rather than what we had here with a new party being formed that was led by a breakaway candidate who ended up competing against his original party.

  11. SKI says:

    @Pch101: Right. We agree – structure matters more than culture/personalities/etc. Math is universal.

  12. @SKI: The dangers of trying to comment quickly 🙂

  13. @Pch101:

    There were several choices available to Americans, even though only two of them had a reasonable chance of winning.

    True, but the bolded part matters. It is why I noted in the post that there were 4 of 11 who had a shot.

    And, there is a big difference between shooting for a top two finish versus having to win the plurality in the first round. It changes the strategic choices of actors (and voters).

    What makes the US system different (and perhaps not in a good way) is the persistence of the two same parties at the top of the heap. In France, the major parties merge, dissolve, etc

    .

    Yes, but the point being is that the rules of competition directly shape the choices made by power-seekers. There is no reason to compete outside of the two-party system because not only is that pathway almost certainly going to lead to a loss, but it is far easier (although still difficult) to win the nomination of one of the two major parties.

    To wit: Trump manages the GOP nomination and is POTUS while Third Party Candidate Trump would have lost.

    The rules dictate how the game is played, and even who decides to play.

    The parties persist because of the rules under which they compete.

  14. @Pch101: Indeed, this comment (which I read after responding the the previous comment) hits a lot of what I am talking about.

    Rules matter.